About two years after starting harp lessons, I picked up The Art of Practicing-A Guide to Making Music From the Heart, by Madeline Bruser (New York: Bell Tower, 1997.) I was trying to figure out how to practice in a way that was deeper than my simple, and boring, repetitions of a couple of measures of music at a time. I knew how to work on small chunks of material and build them into bigger chunks. What I didn’t know was how to take the small chunk of me that was trying to be a musician and build that into a bigger chunk.
Mindfulness practice meets music practice – that’s this book in a very small nutshell. But the concepts about practice and performance that Madeline Bruser introduces have expanded my thinking about music, about practice, about performance, and about my place in all of these activities, far beyond this simple description.
This book is hard to write about, because the author describes it so perfectly. Here’s her description of her ten-step approach to practicing:
The Art of Practicing is a step-by-step approach that integrates movement principles with meditative discipline, which consists of focusing on sounds, sensations, emotions, and thoughts in the present moment. It cultivates a free and relaxed mind, an open heart, free and natural movement, and vivid, joyful listening. . . . Above all, I wish to encourage musicians to trust their experience of their own bodies and minds, and to believe that within their struggle and confusion lie the passion and intelligence that are the keys to joyful, productive practicing and powerful performing.
Her ten steps define a path for the journey to becoming fully present with your music practice, your music and yourself. Each step is explained in its own chapter, with multiple examples taken from the author’s performing and teaching career. While she teaches piano, she relates the practice steps to the study of other instruments.
Bruser brings the same concepts of mindfulness to memorizing music and to performing. She sees performing as the opportunity to share with the audience not only your music, but also your energy and yourself. Her ideas about performance anxiety resonate with me, given the shaking and quaking that playing my harp can inspire. Rather than sharing tricks to avoid it, she reframes performance anxiety as a “courageous act” that is an avenue to personal transformation:
Every courageous act we commit in life transforms us in some way. When we take our place onstage shaking with fear and dare to make music, we re-create not only a musical composition but also ourselves. We give in to the power of life, which is bigger than we are, and become bigger through that surrender. . . . Each time you confront fear head on and let the adrenaline flood your body, you liberate the energy of fear and make it available for creative action.
I’ve read and reread this book several times now – it truly is a companion on my journey. And each time, it reminds me that the most important step I can take towards being a musician is to be present, in this moment, in this life.